Education Opinion

Required Reading

By Edmund Janko — March 01, 2002 5 min read
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A teacher insists that those seeking public office prove their literary mettle.

I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. After more than 40 years as a high school and college English teacher, I find that even outside of school I can’t resist the impulse, on occasion, to hand out reading assignments, so to speak. Last summer, for example, the New York Times reported that Charles Schumer, New York’s senior U.S. senator and a member of the Judiciary Committee, had called for “truth in advertising” regarding federal judicial nominees. The courts, he said, will revisit some major issues over the next several years—abortion, affirmative action, and campaign finance reform, to name just a few. So it’s time to ask judicial nominees directly about their ideologies and political affiliations. “I don’t feel it is appropriate,” he said, “for me to vote on a judge unless I have some idea of how he or she is going to vote.”

As refreshing as Schumer’s candor appeared to be, he hastened to add in the article that he was opposed to any litmus tests when it comes to determining ideology. He said only that he’d “tweeze [nominees] out a little, get them to be more specific.”

Because I’m not a politician, I want to go on record as saying that, as an English teacher, I do have a litmus test for all public officials, judges and senators included—a reading litmus test. I would require that all candidates and nominees have read and reflected on a nucleus of works whose ideas and insights are absolutely essential for enlightened citizenship and certainly for public office.

For example, no one’s civic education is complete without having read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” written just after World War II. After absorbing the essay’s message, one would unerringly detect and scorn obfuscation and euphemism, the bag of tricks of all too many politicos. In other words, he or she would reject the use of the term “revenue enhancement” when what is really meant is a tax increase. No fund-raiser would ever be referred to as a “donor servicing event,” and tax revenue wouldn’t be placed in a “lockbox” without an explanation as to who has the key. My candidate would have to share Orwell’s profound respect for clear and unambiguous expression, the ideal of democrats and the bane of totalitarians— and the sort of thing good teachers always strive for in their classrooms.

But according to Orwell, even more is at stake. Politicians, he argues in his essay, have debased our language, filling it with “euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness,” making it “largely the defense of the indefensible.” This profound corruption, spread through deceptive advertisements and simplistic slogans, makes it difficult for citizens to think clearly; in some cases, it even engenders foolish thoughts. Someone once wrote that all politicians strive to turn their followers into children. I would want my candidate to encourage us to think like grown-ups.

Another work on my list is the late James Baldwin’s autobiographical essay “Notes of a Native Son,” written in the mid-1950s, just as the civil rights movement was getting under way. Baldwin, an African American, was clear in his denunciation of bigotry. But at the same time, his is a cautionary tale for those who endlessly promote social grievance as their stock in trade. Yes, one must struggle against injustice, but one must also keep one’s heart free from corrosive bitterness.

In his piece, Baldwin recognizes that endlessly feeding on grievance is ultimately self- destructive. He shows how his own father’s anger at the racism he encountered blighted his family relationships and blinded him to the decency of at least some white people whom he encountered. In facing an outrageous moment of discrimination when denied service in a posh restaurant, Baldwin notes with horror that he has begun to share his father’s rage, literally putting his own life in danger. My judicial nominee or political candidate must recognize that to achieve social justice we must forcefully endeavor to right wrongs but also strive to save society from suicidal hatred and bitterness. Admittedly, it’s a tough balancing act, exposing the world’s ills while tempering often understandable anger.

Finally, anyone who wants my vote would have to have read Paul Gallico’s essay “The Feel,” which is included in his collection A Farewell to Sport. Gallico, who started out as a sportswriter before turning to novels and screenplays, recalls that, early on, he realized he would not be able to report convincingly on athletic events unless he knew, firsthand, what it’s like to participate in the arena. So he sampled as many sports as he could. In fact, he was so dedicated (and, perhaps, foolhardy) that he got into the ring with then- heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, who, in less than a minute, taught Gallico everything anyone would want to know about the pain of boxing.

Gallico’s lesson is especially important. Ever since I first took over a classroom in 1957, I’ve been bombarded with “reform” after “reform”—from city hall, administrative headquarters, legislative chambers, ivory tower academics, and media sapients. But I rarely, if ever, felt that those who offered sure- fire prescriptions to promote learning had the “feel” of what teaching and school life are really like. And the fact that we’re still at this reform thing more than 40 years later should be ample proof that something has been seriously lacking in our efforts. One thing that hasn’t taken hold, as I think most folks in the academic trenches would agree, is the message of Gallico’s essay. Before anyone presumes to solve our nation’s great problems, particularly those in education, one should strive, like that young sportswriter decades ago, to get the “feel.”

The late Al Shanker, once president of the American Federation of Teachers, liked to tell the story of the high school teacher who regularly did a vocational planning unit in her senior classes. Once she invited a lawyer she knew to speak to her students about his career. After talking to two classes, the lawyer looked at his watch and said that he still had time for another class. This was a mistake. After his third presentation, he collapsed into a chair. “Do you do this every day?” he asked his host teacher. What he didn’t realize was that she still had two more classes to teach. But at least the lawyer got something of the “feel” of what teaching was all about. Have all the reformers out there done the same?

According to one story, when Napoleon was asked to appoint someone to a public office, he would invariably respond, “Show me something he has written.” The style and content of that piece of writing, he believed, would reveal the man. I’m not quite as imperial in my demands, but I think I’m just as effective. If you want the job of judge or senator or president, I say, “Show me what you’ve read.”


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